Inside the Whale

September 28, 2006

Israel 7

Filed under: Uncategorized — noahsimblist @ 5:10 pm


My final 2 days were spent in Jerusalem. First, I went back to speak with Adva Rodogovsky, Public Outreach Coordinator at Ir Amim, the organization that runs the tours of the wall (See Israel 4).

Adva was born in Haifa but grew up in Kfar Kish, a tiny farming village in the north of Israel. Both of her parents were born in Poland to families that survived the holocaust and tried to stay in the newly communist country. But in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, a series of anti-Semitic riots broke out and forced them to leave. They moved to Israel not so much out of Zionist ideology but more for mere survival.

When I asked about Adva’s Zionism, she said that she is in a process of “questioning that notion.” Obviously her work with Ir Amim, an organization that explicitly advocates for Palestinian rights, is a sign of this attitude. But it also stems from her attitudes towards religion and its relationship to nationalism.

Like many secular Israelis, Adva says that she does not want to live in a Jewish state. She is a Buddhist and after spending some time living in London and New York, wants Israel to become a more diverse and cosmopolitan democracy. She cares for “this piece of land” but doesn’t believe that she or anyone else has any kind of transcendent religious right to it.

On a personal level, she feels that Israelis must reach out to Palestinians. She works with Palestinians and has many Palestinian friends. She has even dated Palestinian guys – a huge taboo in Israeli society. But despite her seeming idealism, she is losing hope for a peaceful solution to the conflict. After the election of Hamas, which does not recognize Israel and will not negotiate, and the recent bombings of Gaza in retaliation for the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, she wonders if either side is ready to be a partner in negotiation.

Later that day I spoke with my cousin, Leiba Chaya David and her husband Yonah. They come from a very different place on the ideological spectrum. Both grew up in the U.S. and moved to Israel in the past 10 years. They live on a Moshav ( not far from Jerusalem. The route to get there was interesting. I had to go via the new tunnel roads that head toward the West Bank. These roads have been used by Jews traveling between Jerusalem and the settlements of Gush Etzion, including Alon Shvut where my friend Zvi lives (see previous post – Israel 5). I crossed through a checkpoint and then passed the settlements and then crossed another checkpoint back over the green line.

Anyway, after this circuitous route, we got to talking. Leiba Chaya is a Baal Tshuva (some one who becomes religious). She changed her name from Jennifer as a part of this process. Jennifer grew up in suburban Atlanta, went to a liberal arts college and became very invested in progressive politics, especially environmentalism. Now in Israel, she has found a way to combine this interest with her (relatively) newfound religious life. She teaches courses about the links between biblical descriptions of plant and animal life in the “land of Israel” and more secular ideas about the environment.

Her politics have followed along. Like many Jews, once there is a belief that the Jews have not only an historical but also a God given relationship to Israel, it makes it very difficult to acknowledge or understand Palestinian claims to the same land. Both Adva and Leiba Chaya have moved away from the mainstream secular Zionism that founded the country. This polarization between secular cosmopolitanism and religious Zionism became more and more pronounced the more people that I talked to.

I then spoke with was Pnina Gday, An Ethiopian immigrant who now works at the Hillel (a Jewish outreach organization) at Hebrew University. Pnina immigrated to Israel with her mother as a part of Operation Moses when she was a small girl. Her mother was a Zionist, a rare thing in Ethiopia, and according to Pnina, came for ideological reasons before it became unsafe for Jews during the war with Eritrea in the early 1990’s.


(this is not Pnina but you get an image of another mother and child during the Operation Moses)

I spoke with Pnina about the difficulties of growing up as a kind of outsider within Israeli society. She agreed that there was racism but that she experienced very little compared with some others. She explained that the mass immigration that followed her own, Operation Solomon brought many Ethiopian Jews that were more rural and lost in the Western society of Israel.

She talked about her work with some of these youth and the ways that they have adopted African American Hip-Hop culture as a way to talk about their sense of Otherness. She however is very assimilated and when she recently went back to Ethiopia to visit her father, she felt like a tourist. This complicated her sense of home, going back to Ethiopia was a relatively alienating experience while her mother brought them to Israel, a place that neither of them had ever been as a kind of homecoming.

As she talked, I thought of an earlier conversation that I had with Micha Odenheimer, who talked about his own work with Ethiopians as a part of his NGO that helps them integrate more fully into Israeli society. He claimed that there is no racism in Israel toward Ethiopians. There is a disparity, he said but it has more to do with class. He talked about how most Ethiopians were brought to development towns on the periphery of Israeli society where poor Sephardic Jews (who had come to Israel on similar airlifts from Morocco, Yemen, and Iraq) lived. The Sephardim worried that the Ethiopians would dilute the educational system and take away their social service benefits. I brought this up to Pnina and she understood where it was coming from but still talked about getting job interviews and walking in the door to see complete surprise on the faces of everyone in the room – no one would expect a black woman in Israel to be as well educated and articulate as her.

Finally, just hours before getting on the plane, I talked with Dov Berkowitz, an American who moved to Israel in 1970 who currently lives in Shilo, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. I asked Dov about his beginnings in Israel and he told me about his experiences as a settler. He said that he began on the political left but after many experiences involving violence, he is now solidly on the right. He spoke about feeling alienated when he drives through secular Israel, a feeling on moving from one reality to another. He said that often he feels like much of the anger between secular leftists and religious Zionists like himself begins with the secular Jews. This is deeply in conflict with his ideas about a Nation of Israel and the Land of Israel (in a biblical sense).

This is a map of where Shilo is – see blue and green icon if you don’t read Hebrew.


He said that they often don’t realize the intense sense of community that settlers like him have. For instance, a woman in their community was carjacked. The community all chipped in to buy her a new car. He was very proud of this story as an example of how a community cares for its own.

But as a Jewish educator, he was much more interested in talking about some more symbolic and philosophical ideas about home and its relationship to physical space. First, he spoke about the bible as a narrative from the Garden of Eden through Egypt and finally arriving at the Land of Israel. Eden is a place of harmony and wholeness but one that breeds exile. While Israel grows out of exile and has the potential to defeat exile and create an experience of home that is related to the experience of spiritual growth.

That was home in Jewish thought on a mythic macro scale. On the micro scale he believes that home is often dealt with through Jewish law (Halachah). For instance, on the holiday of sukkot coming up in a week, Jews are supposed to live outside their homes in a shack often made with cloth walls and a ceiling made of palm leaves, spread out enough to see the stars. This is supposed to make sure that Jews feel the sense of impermanence to their sense of home, and instead see it defined by the relationships of family and community.

A second and interesting example was the idea of the “Eruv.” On the Sabbath, Jewish law prohibits Jews from carrying things from private to public space. In order to get around this the Rabbinic law invented the idea of converting public space into private space so that in a community of houses around a central square, they would all exist as one family.

One final issue of physical space that he brought up was the issue of Jerusalem and the Western Wall. The Western Wall is a remnant of eth Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Many Jews believe that the temple will be rebuilt when the messiah comes and see the Western Wall as the holiest place in the world. Dov believes that Jerusalem and the Western Wall are “holding us back” because it is to reductive to tread any one place with such priority. The most important thing for him is the future, not a messianic future defined by building but one in which we pay attention to our relationships to each other, between the nation of Israel and its border nations, and between ourselves and God.


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